This week we’re working our way through the section on Architecture in the WPA Guide to the Magnolia State, published in 1938 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. If you’re coming in late, make sure to pick up Part 1 and Part 2.
As we’ve stated already, it appears from the sketchy evidence we’ve cobbled together that Beverly Martin, a young architect from Natchez, wrote this section. Mr. Martin’s attempt to summarize the architectural development of the state is idiosyncratic, as might be expected in a work that not only represents the first such attempt for the state but also sits at the very early stages of the academic study of architectural history.
Martin’s romantic view of the antebellum past and its classical buildings leads him to not-quite concealed disgust at what came after the Civil War and the overthrow of the planter aristocracy. For those of you who can’t drive past a jigsawn, turreted house without screeching on the brakes to take a picture . . . you may want to stop reading right now. Martin doesn’t even spare the revival of classical architecture in the form of the Beaux Arts style–he gives our beloved New Capitol two sentences, noting its mass with a curl of his lip.
The architecture developed since the War between the States, however, reflects only too well Mississippi’s social and economic adjustments. Out of the war and reconstruction arose a merchant-banker society that supplanted the leadership of the planter. There was a transposition of social and economic prestige from rural district to urban centers, and with the transposition were lost that qualities that had nourished individuality in design. The urban dweller does not possess the remoteness of broad acres and wooded groves; he lives in a comparatively crowded space; his tastes are conventionalized; his land is measured in lineal feet; and his servants are paid each Saturday at noon. To fit this new locale of conveniences, customs, and tastes, the builders adopted new methods and, recently, new materials. Unfortunately, the result is often neither distinctive nor, by comparison with Natchez, especially noteworthy.
The story of the plantation’s decline and continued dependence is held fast in the planter’s contemporary architecture. Impoverished and faced with the immediate task of reconstruction, the landowner was left at first with little time which to build. When he finally had gained the time, he was no longer the dictator of his tastes, for under the new system capital was not on the farm but in the towns. Within a decade rural construction reached the level of barren necessity.
The influence of urban merchant-bankers on rural building, through the power of extended credit, had reduced was what once the “big house” on the farm to a questionably comfortable frame dwelling of indefinite plan and parentage. Tenant houses, by their number, catch the eye, but they hardly warrant architectural description. They are Delta, or Piney Woods, or “southern shacks”–local color in architecture. In the Tennessee Hills, in the Central Hills, and in the Piney Woods, the poorer homes with the mud-wattle chimneys, sagging roofs, and vertical weather-boarding are as bare and stark as the poverty they represent; the bright corrugated tin roofs covering weather-beaten walls of barns represent a false economy. Many of the richer homes are uncertain in design and lacking in taste.
With the exception of Natchez, Vicksburg, Columbus, and Holly Springs, the towns, submerged both socially and economically before the war, gained from the Reconstruction Period and importance that was in direct ration to the rural districts’ decline. And, again as in the rural district, the change developed an architecture that almost defies classification. As if hastily discarding traditional rags for costumes that better expressed their new station in life, the towns followed the North into a building boom that has lasted from the 1880’s to the present (1938). Paradoxically, the late economic depression rather than the boom proved an architectural blessing.
The period between 1880s and 1914 belonged to a generation of newly empowered urban persons who expressed themselves, not in the simpler classic styles adhered to by the planter, but in elaborate display. Volume was preferred to refinement of detail; and an exterior trim of jigsaw decorations matched a gaudy interior that has come to characterize the period. (This exhibitionism sometimes resulted in houses vaguely reminiscent of the grandiose homes of the 1850’s–Longwood at Natchez and the Walter place at Holly Springs). Contractors and carpenters, as much without benefit of architectural advice as had been the slaves, reproduced in their busy practice the styles made popular in the North by the boom of 1873. The Victorian Gothic, the Romanesque, and the American version of the Queen Anne were architectural types accepted as representative of wealth. In the cities these three types marked the better-class residential section. In the smaller towns, where the wealthier families usually occupied the first tree-shaded block north of the business district, the preservation was for the local carpenter’s version of Victorian Gothic. Such homespun variations sacrificed convenience for false splendor, and in a determination to achieve volume obliterated the lines that originally gave the design a name. The houses were of frame construction and, usually, two stories in height. With their elaborate gingerbread trimmings, bulging bay windows, and pointed turrets they remain to mark the home of the banker or merchant in a majority of Mississippi towns today. The Rowan home, with its unstudied massiveness, its twenty-three rooms, and its gingerbread exterior treatment, is an example. The elder types remain as criteria of good taste, and to these models latter-day designers return for inspiration.
The abandonment of tradition for massiveness found expression in the building of the New Capitol at Jackson in 1903. Designed by Theodore C. Link in the manner of the National Capitol and built of gray sandstone and marble, it faces the business district from ten landscaped acres.
The rise of the lumber industry, the establishment of railroad shops, and the building of a few cotton mills gave to the Piney Woods, to Meridian, and to Stonewall what were perhaps the first grouped, standardized houses for the working class. These houses, small frame buildings one-story high, were erected by the company and grouped close to the commissary–a barnlike frame structure raised from the ground and fronted with a narrow shed porch. Lean-to porches extend across the front and rear of the house, and thin bisecting partitions divide the interiors into four rooms of equal size. At Quitman, once the site of the State’s largest sawmill, and D’Lo, a typical sawmill ghost town, are examples of grouped, company-owned houses.
At Laurel and Electric Mills, however, the lumber industry placed emphasis on housing almost from the start. Here the policy of encouraging home ownership and individuality of taste has resulted in the white millworkers’ building neat cottages suited to the size and needs of their families. These low-priced cottages have enhanced in a modest way Mississippi’s architectural and social scene, and have supplied an example of economical housing reform.
Back to post 1 The Rowan House is later described in Tour 5, Section b, as located in the rural community of Beauregard in Copiah County. At the time, the house was vacant and tales of hauntings had kept it from new owners. I’ve been through Beauregard, or what’s left of it, and I didn’t see any house even close to the size that this 23-room building must have been, so I assume the house no longer stands.
This post is third in a four-part series on the Architecture section of the WPA Guide to the Magnolia State, published in 1938 as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Want to read the rest of the series?
- WPA Guide to the Magnolia State
- No Such Thing as “Southern Colonial”
- Let’s Just Forget 1865-1920
- But the Depression is Great!
Categories: Architectural Research